It’s happened to all of us. We hear of someone else’s illness or misfortune, and we feel bad for them. Or, maybe we’re frightened or triggered because we’re reminded of our own mortality or powerlessness, and we’d rather not think about it. Imagining ourselves in that situation is too uncomfortable to bear, so we shift from empathy to pity, which is easier.

You can safely pity someone from an emotional distance. You can self-soothe by telling yourself you’d do it differently if you were in the same circumstances, or that you know how to fix it, or that the person will be okay because they’re strong. I’ve done it. I catch myself doing it all the time, and these days, I’m mostly able to shut my mouth and listen. Mostly.

I’ve also been the pitiful one. I bet you have, too. I’ve lain sick in bed, gritting my teeth against the pain, determined to tough it out. I’ve been utterly prostrate with grief. I’ve come home from a lovely night with dear friends and been unable to stop the anxiety that whispers over and over, “They only tolerate you. You’re unlovable, you know that.” I’ve been in thick, black depression that tells me I shouldn’t be here. I’ve borne the shame that comes with debilitation that makes it impossible to perform even the simplest action. I’ve felt the fear that everyone, everyone will forget me in my absence; I’ll fade like fog that burns off in the daylight. I’ve been exhausted by the kind, well-meaning people who say, “Let me know if there’s anything I can do” because I honestly don’t know how to answer that when I’m in the depths. I’m a pulsating ball of need, but I have no language for it. I only know that if one more person suggests a turmeric smoothie or tells me I’m a warrior or an inspiration, I’ll run shrieking.

It’s no one’s fault. It can be really fucking hard to figure out how to be of help. To that end, I’ve started a wish list that may be a good jumping off point, though, of course, each person is different and will have their own specific needs.

A Wish List From a Struggler:

  • Don’t try to relate; be a witness
  • Ask questions but don’t require answers
  • Don’t “should”
  • Don’t put the positivity burden on wounded
  • Don’t tell the other person how they look or how you think they are (don’t characterize); ask “How are you today?”
  • Don’t make it about your feelings
  • Don’t assume that because the struggle is not visible, it doesn’t exist anymore or isn’t serious
  • Don’t make the struggling person perform emotional labor by asking them to educate you: GOOGLE THAT SHIT
  • Allow space for mess and uncertainty – do not fix
  • Reflect, be a mirror – tell your friend she is not crazy or defective; tell her you SEE her
  • Do show up, physically and emotionally
  • Do continue checking in, especially as time passes
  • Do invite
  • Do bring food
  • Do laugh
  • Do help by performing tasks for the struggler if they ask, and sometimes, even if they don’t; maybe check with one of their loved ones to see what is needed
  • Do give gifts (not necessarily material ones)
  • Do share stories of the outside world
  • Do stay connected – people need to feel anchored, and relationships with others are crucial
  • Do know that you are appreciated, even if your attempts to help are clumsy; imperfect kindness is still kindness

What’s on your wish list?

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